Ronnie and the "Gambler"
The woods seemed very new… altogether vibrant to me – and very cold!
I had been away from hunting, at least for the most part, for several years now. This hunt had the feel of a kid who has missed Christmas, somehow slept through it perhaps, and is given a chance to get it back…
The year was 1993 or 1994, I am not sure now… and it was the week of Thanksgiving.
A little background is in order here… After living and hunting in Georgia my whole life, I had suffered through a bad divorce a few years prior to this and had moved to South Florida – and my hunting adventures literally ground to a halt. Camo and tree stands were traded in for a mask, fins and a spear gun. A natural hunter (at least I think I am), the underwater world came very easily to me – but just plain sightseeing did not last long. As soon as I realized there were big fish – and man oh man – lobsters… the ‘Hunter” came out in me in a hurry. I joined a group and we fished and dove the Bahamas for over a decade and if you have not been there (particularly off of the beaten path), you are missing a treat!
My brother Ronnie and I had gotten a jump on what had been an annual ritual - the Thanksgiving hunt - and after being missing for a few years, I was finally able to take the week off and get back to Georgia for some hunting. We knew we had to be home, back in Savannah, by Wednesday night for the Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday but we would be back again on Friday for the three day weekend hunt - but right now, it was Monday and we had a few extra days to hunt.
I guess most readers who have seen some of my stories may have already figured this one out... in our family, Ronnie is the hunter and I am the writer. It just sort of worked out that way, I guess, in spite of the fact that I was the one that actually introduced Ronnie to hunting... but, any rate, that is the situation.
I wish I could tell you this is my story, but - alas - it is not. I am going to change gears for this story... as I have mentioned before, Ronnie is a superb story teller... so, today, I am going to try to tell this story from the first person... follow along now as we join Ronnie in the deer stand!
OK Folks... here we go... I gave Jimmy the swamp... he needs a kill, so I will let him have what I consider the better end of the farm... at least early this week... then I will move on over there and show him how to get some hunting done!!
I love the boy but he is rusty, at best!!!
I had hung this stand just the day before. It was situated in some mature pines, right where an old fence came to a 90 degree angle in the woods. The fence was mostly still intact, although it was clearly trampled down in a few areas and in some places, trees had fallen on it and knocked portions of it down. Sitting in the stand, an agricultural field – empty now – was on my extreme hard left, although I could see small portions of it from the stand. If fact, not 10 yards from this chain on stand were the remnants of an old, dilapidated wood stand Jimmy had built in the fork of a tree many years prior for bowhunting. It had a sad and forlorn look to it and it the word that kept coming to my mind was abandoned… and perhaps neglected, too.
No more than 50 yards down the fence line was a major crossing in the fence and there are 5-6 pine trees there that have been tortured by the bucks, year after year… they are gnarled and twisted, mute testimony to the rutting action in this area. Just inside the fence – on the other side from where I am – I located two giant scrapes yesterday when scouting – and they were neat as a pin, not a leaf in either one. I can not see the crossing, the rubs nor the scrape from my vantage point, but right out in front of the stand, no more than 50 yards distant, I can see where two trails bisect leading into the area, along with several openings in the pines.
A major cold front was approaching, in fact, it was literally passing overhead. It had rained hard late in the afternoon the day before, had rained on and off throughout the night and was still blowing gusty rain showers through periodically this morning. Sleeping in the Civil War era farm house that night, the rain and wind had rattled the tin roof.
The westerly wind had shifted now, very perceptibly toward the northwest and had picked up considerably. I could feel the deep freeze coming, temperature were forecast into the lower 20’s that night, with a daytime high of only about 40 or so. Bet old Florida boy Jimmy is freezing his buns off over in the swamp!
Knowing that pre-cold front conditions were far better for deer hunting than the gusty, blue bird days after the front, this morning had a little bit of a “do or die” feel to it – particularly since the major thrust of the rut was over, at least from a historical standpoint.
I watched as three does eased through the pines in single file and wondered if they had banded back together now – after being blown to the four winds by the frantic action of the rut – or had this group not yet come into estrus??? If they had not come into season yet, perhaps I could catch a good buck slipping along, shadowing these three.
Hoping for the latter, I knew it was a little late for that, heck – we were almost at the end of November - but hope springs eternal in the heart of the hunter – as we all know!
The trio faded out into the pines, neither feeding nor hurrying.
Watching like a hawk for about ten minutes or so, no bucks were in evidence. Settling back into the chain on, I shored myself against a possible long wait as the temperatures continued to fall. Situated on the far eastern end of the farm, this was a section that we did not hunt very much at all. The property tapered down into a narrow finger of land at this point and was grown up very thickly in vines, briers, small trees and other underbrush. We had hunted this portion of the farm in our earlier days – but then we discovered the joys of the swamp and this end had primarily been left alone.
The morning advanced and as the scudding clouds started to break up, patches of blue were now starting to show in what was a leaden sky… The wind picks up now, swinging toward the north and I feel the pine tree sway and a colder feel creeps into air. We have seen the high temp for the day, that much is obvious. I am guessing 38 degrees or so but with the raw wind, it feels much colder. I can not imagine that Jim-Bob will make it much longer....
I glance at the time – already almost eleven o’clock now… man, where did the morning go?
Huddled against the wind, I do not see the deer. Knowing that a wise old buck will choose the thickest woods to travel in, I am primarily concentrating my observations on the deeper woods and trails out in front of the stand.
Someone forgot to tell this beast about sneaking.
I glance to my left – 11:15 or later now – and across the field and into the woods he has walked…. He is no more than 30 yards from me when I pivot my head that way – and he had an incredibly tall rack!!! Points reached toward the sky and that was the good news. The bad news… he was staring right at me.
Frozen, I avert my eyes, hoping against hope that he will make a mistake – he is a shooter in anyone’s book, at least in this area.
He does not stomp or carry on. He just stares. Unflinching.
I am stuck… there is nothing I can do.
He turns his head, just slightly and I think – this is the break I have been waiting for. Almost imperceptibly, I start to raise the rifle – and the game is over before it even starts.
I think now, he turned his head on purpose… and was watching out of the corner of his eye – there is NO other way he could have been so fast.
From standing stock still – to a full run – could not have taken more than 2 seconds. In fact, when he pivoted to run, I swear his right side shoulder grazed the ground – that is how freakishly fast he dug into the soil and how hard he launched himself as he left.
I was not even in the game.
Not even close.
Thunderstruck, I wonder that the heck he was doing… the field was WIDE open…why did he walk across that field?
In my mind now, I am thinking of ways to try to intercept him tomorrow – he made one mistake, he can make another, right?
With lunchtime almost here, I am mostly wet, very cold and ready for some lunch. I start to gather my items and realize I have one last cup of joe in the thermos… I pour it and hunch down in the stand – but I am now keeping a closer eye on the field!!!
I drink and enjoy the hot, black coffee – particularly in an area where it seems so unlikely to have it.
Working now, in my mind, I am trying to develop a plan for this afternoon that will allow for the building wind… I expect 15 – 20 mph gusts and know that this plays havoc with the deer. I had intended to hunt this end of the property until Wednesday - and then move back over to the swamp... but maybe not now!
Feet! I see deer feet!
100 yards or more distant, I see movement, in the deepest part of the woods…. clearly two front feet of a deer.
Now they just stand.
Minutes pass and I think – are my eyes playing tricks on me? Cup empty, I lay it to the side… and watch intently now.
I can no longer even find the feet….did I really see them??
There – a buck… I see his head now – with antlers high up above some branches that are in the way!!!
He disappears again now… only 5 yards from where I first saw him.
Now, his rump… I see his rump and one rear leg…
Gone again now…where is he?? How big is he????
Antlers now… oh yes, a good buck!!!
Three yards forward now, he disappears again.
This goes on for almost 30 minutes and he has covered no more than 30 yards. I have never seen a deer move so deliberately or slowly.
The scrapes!!! He is coming at midday to check the scrapes!!!!
Good Lord, I hope Jimmy does not come walking up now...
Minutes continue to tick – the cover is so thick, I can barely make out where he is, heck half of that time, I can not even see him… a glimpse now or just a patch of brown there… an antler above the tree branches.
Again, I catch a glance of him – but there is no way to get a shot… he moves as slowly as molasses in the winter it seems, it would have been very easy not to even see him at all.
Finally, he is gone and I can not find him…. I search and search in vain – he must have caught me somehow… or maybe just wandered off?
Man, two in one morning… what a mess up this is.
Antlers!! Again… 10 yards from where I last saw him – he is still there!!!!
He nose sticks out from behind a tree – antler tips even with his nose… oh yes, he is a shooter.
Like the movement of an hour hand on a clock, almost imperceptibly, he oozes just forward. He chin and eyes I can see now…. now his ear… antlers rise well above his head…(don't count points, boy... pay attention!) now the top of his neck comes into view…. And then the side of his neck – almost half of his neck shows now…
I can take it no longer… I look down… 12:35 – this is crazy… I raise the 30.06 and settle the reticle on the side of his head, just below the ear… praying now, Lord, guide my hands and make me true… true to the spirit of this buck… I slide the intersecting portion of the reticle down now…. just to the muscular part of the neck, the vertical section of the reticle is literally aligned with the trunk of the tree he stands behind… but if I move it forward at all, I lose the good part of his neck…
OK that’s it… the shot is no good…. Muscles strain in my neck and back from holding the rifle… just wait, wait.... maybe he will make a mistake…
Seconds stretch now, hung in time…I wait, rifle still ready.
Look! A quarter of a step may have been taken – or maybe he just leaned forward to take a step… the neck moves forward an inch or so – there – the reticle finds the center of his neck and the rifle seems to go off of its own accord!!!
True to an unspoken promise, the 150 grain projectile strikes the buck directly in the side of his neck, snapping his spine and killing him instantaneously.
I sink rearward into the stand; exhausted, cold, shaking with the adrenaline flooding into my system…. I can not see the buck from the stand but I know he went down… I try to calm now – with very little success.
Later, as Jimmy and I sit by the fireplace with a few adult beverage and review the hunt we discuss the mistakes made.
By the first deer.
We decide the second buck, a stout and well antlered beast, did not make any.
He did at all correctly.
He stuck to cover.
He was crafty.
He was patient.
He was a victim… of post rut behavior that he was likely powerless to stop. We believe that the does were pretty much out of season and the randy bucks, after weeks of non stop breeding, were frantic to find another mate – and were making themselves vulnerable.
One did it in an obvious fashion and got away scott free.
One did it in a crafty manner – but the flip of the coin did not fall his way – and he paid the ultimate price.
Gamblers – some win and some lose.
OK, that is the end of Ronnie's story... it was told as best I could tell it. His buck, a great ten pointer, still stands as one of the better bucks we have taken...I did not even hear the shot. Shamefully, I was at the house, warming up.
I ended the week up with no harvest, not even a doe... although Ronnie took two does that weekend down in the swamp. The 30.06 was the ruler that weekend by which other hunters were judged and I just came up a little short.
With a tip of the hat to the "Gambler Buck", I drove back to Fort Lauderdale and warmer climates, but very much the richer for time spent in the woods with my brother.